Born without the lower part of her right arm, violinist and rock climber Giovanna Dubuc lets passion and determination fuel her success. With a little help from Hanger Clinic prosthetist Mark Elgart, Giovanna received a custom activity-specific prosthetic device to play the violin. Now, she’s one of the first in the country to be fit with the Hero Arm, a 3D-printed bionic arm that lets her operate individual fingers through muscle signals in her arm—ideal for the teenager’s sense of independence, including riding her bike, tying her own shoes, and helping mom and dad with chores.
Giovanna Dubuc doesn’t let much stand in her way. Born with a congenital limb difference and missing her right arm below the elbow, the active 14-year-old plays the violin, rock climbs competitively, rides her bike, and is a self-proclaimed book nerd.
Now, for the first time in her life, she has functioning fingers, made possible by her Charlotte, N.C.-based Hanger Clinic team and the Hero Arm.
“I’m able to do so much more now,” she said.
Before receiving the Hero Arm, if she wanted to cook, Giovanna said it took her hours of setting up, cooking, and cleaning with one hand, all while making sure she didn’t burn the meal. Now, she can do everything much faster, including folding her clothes and helping her parents with the household chores.
“Oh yes, that’s every teenage girl’s dream,” she said, laughing. “I think the best part of this is that I can read and write at the same time now. That was gold for me.”
Born this way
Of course Jenny Dubuc remembers the moment nurses laid her newborn baby girl on her chest.
“She propped her head up almost as if to say, ‘I’m here. This is me.’ We just had a moment there and I knew this little baby is going to be something special.”
Jenny and her husband, Manuel, didn’t know their daughter was missing part of her arm before she was born. The ultrasounds didn’t show any indication of a congenital limb difference.
“After she was born, I was wondering if I did something that could have harmed her. It took me a while to get through that guilt. The doctor said I had nothing to blame myself for.”
Jenny and Manuel made a decision: they would raise their daughter with no limits.
“We accepted that she would be no different,” Jenny said. “That was our way to make sure she would be okay.”
Early in her childhood, Jenny said that Giovanna insisted on trying everything first before accepting any help -- from tying her shoes to buttoning her own clothes.
“She was so stubborn and it was frustrating for us at times, but I think that has helped her,” Jenny said.
That stubbornness forged a sense of independence and determination, her parents added, which led her to try dance, swimming, volleyball, and violin.
Becoming a violinist
In second grade, Giovanna went to a friend’s house to play. The girls took out her friend’s violin, and Giovanna watched her friend play.
“There was just something about it,” Giovanna said. “It was so graceful. I loved the vibrations and the way the bow and the strings worked together.”
Remembering that her parents always told her she could do anything she put her mind to, Giovanna said she went home and told her parents she wanted to learn to play the violin.
"Of course she wanted to play the most difficult instrument,” Jenny said, laughing. “We just thought, ‘How is she going to do this? Who is going to teach her?’”
They turned to prosthetists at Hanger Clinic in Charlotte, N.C.
“It was love at first sight,” Jenny said. “They started working and tweaking. We learned they needed to make the prosthetic slightly longer than her actual arm to help the bow move better.”
An added touch: Hanger Clinic prosthetist Mark Elgart painted the custom activity arm light pink with sparkles.
The Hero Arm
Jenny and Manuel said they are in awe of their daughter.
“We never needed to adapt. She figured everything out,” Manuel said. “Every day she says ‘I need to try something new.’ It’s amazing to see how she’s growing and trying.”
Now entering high school, Giovanna is experiencing another new opportunity: a functioning right hand and fingers.
She’s one of the first in the country to be fit with the Hero Arm, a 3D-printed bionic arm that allows her to control the individual fingers through muscle signals in her arm.
“I can carry my books at school without hunching my shoulders,” Giovanna said. “There is so much more I can do now.”
Created by Open Bionics in the U.K., and made financially possible by Inner Wheel, the Hero Arm is a lightweight myoelectric prosthesis that features multi-grip functionality, ideal for adults and children as young as 8 years old. Each arm is custom-built, with swappable covers that reflect each user’s personality.
Passion, perseverance, and a strong community
Throughout her journey, passion and perseverance have fueled Giovanna’s success. In September 2018, she tried rock climbing for the first time. Six months later, she placed first in the youth category at the USA Climbing National competition for adaptive climbers.
“The first time going up to a climbing wall, they asked ‘Can you climb?’ and I was like, ‘Sure!’” Giovanna said. “I think I’m determined enough to just not stop. After doing it, I kept thinking about it. I’ll try a project, and I just have to finish it.”
Giovanna said she will continue to let her passions lead her, and she will adapt when needed. She’s interested in studying biomedical engineering in college, but she’s also passionate about the environment and might want to study environmental engineering. She loves math and science, but a recent English teacher fostered a love of the subject in her.
“I want to do it all,” she said, laughing.
Her parents see no limits for their daughter.
“She has achieved all of the things she is passionate about,” her mother said. “I knew she would be special.”